Monday, October 29, 2007

Across the water is the place for me
Oct. 26, 2007

As beautiful as the Capital Region is, it has taken me a long time to click into this place. I’m a Courtenay girl originally, and there’s not much that feels familiar in Greater Victoria if you hail from just about anywhere else on the Island.
But then my partner and I moved to Esquimalt in early 2006. And for whatever reason, things just kind of fell into place.
All of a sudden, I find myself taking an interest in goings-on in my community. Before I moved here, I wasn’t even sure what my “community” was.
I’ve recently caught myself reading with great interest about the proposed redevelopment of the local shopping mall, and pondering what kind of retail mix I’m secretly hoping for. I care about how things will turn out at Kinsmen Gorge Park after new facilities are added, and whether one of my favourite bird-watching fields along one side of the park will be affected.
Those are healthy signs. If I live here, I ought to care about what’s going on in my community. I should be paying attention, and feeling engaged.
I wish I could tell you that I’ve felt that level of engagement all along, on behalf of whatever neighbourhood I was living in at the time. But in all my years in the region, I just never felt the love until I moved to Esquimalt.
I’ve cast my lot in with several communities in the region since moving here in 1989. First came Sooke, then Highlands, albeit a mere electoral district in those days. I lived in the Hillside area for a while before finally settling in Saanich for 14 years, most of it spent in Gordon Head.
We lived in a perfectly nice neighbourhood there, and I don’t mean to suggest that there’s something wrong with Gordon Head. But I admit to feeling like a visitor all those years. It’s hard to pin down what makes a community feel like it’s the right fit for you; all I know is that I couldn’t find mine.
For the longest time, I thought it was just the way it had to be. After all, our region is a final, fabulous stop for people from around the world, all of whom come with their own definition of the “perfect” community.
For that reason alone, it’s always going to be a challenge to build community in our region. With a few exceptions, we tend to be a community of people from other communities. We have a common love for the scenery and climate of the southern Island, but that’s really not much to go on when it comes to community development.
One night maybe two or three years ago, I found myself on the way back home from somewhere and needing to run into the drug store at Colwood Corners. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time, but something must have been in the air that evening.
I walked in the door and suddenly it seemed like I was back among people I recognized - people like me, whatever the heck that means. I’d be hard-pressed to define it. But that night, I felt it.
That’s when it dawned on me that I might be living in the wrong part of the region. My “people” lived elsewhere - in the Western Communities, perhaps. Had it not been for the Colwood Crawl and the prospect of tedious daily commutes in creeping traffic, I might have packed up right then and there.
Fortunately, Esquimalt has turned out to be the happy mid-point. I’d been hearing the jokes since I moved to the region about how different things were “across the bridge” and am delighted to discover that indeed, they are.
Is it the proximity to the water? Could be. I suspect my fervour for kayaking has something to do with a daily routine that regularly leads me past eye-catching stretches of the Gorge and Portage. While I have no more of a water view now than I did in Gordon Head, the wonderful scent of the ocean definitely lingers more on this side of town.
Is it the interesting trails in every direction for cycling and walking? Yes, that’s significant. Recent expansion of the Lochside Trail has made a big difference for the Gordon Head area, but for cyclists in particular it’s still difficult to go for a ride without having to endure unpleasant stretches on roads like McKenzie and Shelbourne.
More than anything, I think what I respond to in Esquimalt is the people. It’s not that they’re nicer, or dramatically different from those in other parts of the region. But something about them just reminds me of where I came from.
The funny thing is, I have no urge to return to Courtenay, and barely recognize the old place anymore. But there must be some Courtenay state of being that I’ve been missing all these years, and for some reason the people on this side of the bridge just seem to bring it to mind more often.
Home. Nice to finally find a neighbourhood where that word feels like it fits.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Homeless solution rests with all of us
Oct. 19, 2007

Up until I read that damn Frances Piven and her research into social change, I was certain that a bright new day was just around the corner in terms of people living sick, homeless and desperate on our streets.
The darkest days are just before the storm, I’d tell myself. People wouldn’t take it for much longer.
The better part of a decade has passed since I first had that thought, prompted by a walk through Vancouver’s tragic Downtown Eastside. But the street situations in Vancouver and Victoria have worsened significantly since then, and I’m still waiting for that storm.
Fortunately, a friend pointed me toward Piven’s 1979 book Poor People’s Movements earlier this year, and I saw in its pages the error in my thinking.
Piven and co-author Richard Coward looked at U.S. movements that had sprung up over the last century around issues such as welfare rights, unemployment insurance, and civil rights for American blacks. In each case, change only happened when several highly specific factors came into play all at the same time - few of which are evident when it comes to homelessness.
Violent protest and economic disruption were essential aspects in the movements Piven and Coward studied. Equally important was somebody in power who was championing the cause. Tiny, dedicated groups of committed people at all levels also had to be in place, and prepared to work very hard for many, many years.
Even with all that in place, change only happened when the mainstream felt directly affected. People had to see that change would serve their own interests. (The mass unemployment of the Depression, for instance, did wonders in convincing the broader population that unemployment insurance was a good idea.)
In addition, those at the heart of the movement had to be relentless in their commitment, not to mention articulate and compelling. View the modern-day disaster of homelessness through Piven’s lens, and it’s obvious why change continues to elude us.
First, consider the homeless themselves.
People on the streets tend to be quite sick - physically and mentally. Few are in any position to protest, let alone wait out the series of court injunctions should they dare try.
They come from a street culture that might as well be Mars in terms of how much it resembles our mainstream culture. They can’t often present themselves in appealing enough fashion to elicit any public sympathy, and many inadvertently inspire fear.
Then there are the challenges of economic disruption as a motivator, particularly in this region.
Downtown Victoria and city taxpayers certainly feel the pain. The city has spent $1.4 million to date in 2007 cleaning up the detritus of 1,200 people living on or near the streets. Police have identified 324 particularly intense people in the downtown who have collectively racked up more than 23,000 encounters with the law in just over three years, at a total cost of $9.2 million. The needle exchange, currently under threat of eviction due to the social ills unfolding on its door step, has seen its caseload triple to 1,600 in the last decade.
But if you don’t live, work or shop in the downtown, it’s almost like there’s no problem. In a region with 13 municipalities and numerous shopping districts, you can choose not to look - at least until the problems grow large enough to spill into your own neighbourhood.
So how will we battle this beast at the heart of our community? I guess it’s up to the small band of believers that Piven identified as playing a key role in leading change. If you’ve made it this far into my column, it could be you’re one of them.
Maybe you’re sick of washing urine and dirty needles from your storefront. Maybe you want homes, health care and support for everyone out there. Maybe you live in the middle of it all and just want a decent night’s sleep and a feeling of safety. No matter. Everyone who wants meaningful solutions to the real issues on our streets is ultimately on the same side.
The Mayor’s Task Force on breaking the cycle of mental illness, addiction and homelessness reports today. And as you’ll see, there are solutions.
The task force has spent the last five months crafting a strategy that draws on best practises from around the world. Speaking as someone who was part of the process, it’s a good report. There’s much to learn from the experiences of cities that are hard at work trying to tackle their own crisis of homelessness.
But without action, the report is just words on paper. There’s no big bag of money out there waiting to be spent, and no immediately obvious champion for the cause who will take it from here. In other words, don’t count on change unless you’re prepared to be part of it.
Homelessness is growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year. Close to 2,000 people will be living on our streets by the end of next year. Another 600 will join them the following year, and almost 800 more in 2010.
Want to do something about that? Then gird your loins and let’s get at it. Nobody but us is going to make it happen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pine-beetle devastation marks end of B.C.'s pine forests
Oct. 12, 2007

My first glimpse of what has now become a catastrophic natural disaster for B.C. was in 2003, when I was travelling around the province writing stories from the so-called heartland.
At that point, the mountain pine beetle was already into its fourth voracious year of attacking B.C.’s pine forests. In my stopovers in Quesnel and Prince George, the briefest glance from the car window was all it took to see the damage. In the worst-hit spots, dead trees covered the landscape.
The people in affected areas were still trying to be cheery and entrepreneurial about the pine beetle disaster in those days. The greyish-blue wood colour that is a hallmark of a beetle-infested pine was being reworked as a niche product - “denim pine.”
I returned to the coast and didn’t think too much about pine beetles after that. Lodge pole pine is a rarity in coastal forests, so it’s easy to forget the whole tragic thing if you don’t get out of town much.
But a visit to my old haunts in Kamloops last week brought me face to face with the terrible reality of B.C.’s pine beetle infestation another four years on.
Most of the beautiful pine forests that dot the dry hills around Kamloops are dead now, or will be soon. I saw the red patches across the river valley first, and initially wondered if I was looking at deciduous trees turning colour. I drove past a familiar hill on the Yellowhead Highway and wondered if fire was responsible for the greying trees. Then I remembered.
By the time the beetle infestation peters out in eight or so years, 80 per cent of the pine trees on B.C.’s forestry lands will be dead. Half will be dead by next year.
In parks and on private lands, the damage will be equally catastrophic. The more established the forest, the greater the impact; pine beetles prefer older trees.
Like most catastrophes, there’s a tangle of reasons for why B.C. is in the grip of the biggest beetle infestation in North American history.
To start with, there are just more mature lodge pole pines in B.C. than there used to be. In 1910, the province had 2.5 million hectares of pine that was at least 60 years old. That figure had more than tripled by 1990.
A long-standing provincial policy to put out wildfires rather than leave them to burn is also a factor. Instead of burning up on a regular basis like they once did, B.C.’s pine forests now live long enough to grow old, which is just how the pine beetle likes them. Logged land that had been replanted with a single species added to the problem, as it concentrated stands of lodge pole pine.
Then came global warming. The only weather that will kill off a pine beetle is several straight days of cold temperatures below -35 C. Since 1999, when the current infestation started taking hold, the Interior hasn’t seen a winter like that.
The environmental impact of the infestation goes well beyond the aesthetic of 9.2 million hectares of dead lodge pole pines. A healthy forest soaks up significant amounts of runoff in the spring. It also creates a lot of shade, which slows the rate of snow melt.
So dead trees mean way more water making its way into B.C.’s creeks and rivers every spring. Topsoil on the forest floor gets stripped away in the rapid flow of runoff, and rivers jump their banks. Fragile ecosystems, roadways, farmland, fisheries - all will be put at risk by the time the infestation runs its course, in ways that no one can fully predict.
In terms of making money from those dead trees before they’re too rotten to sell, the province is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The annual allowable cut in half of the 20 hardest hit Timber Supply Areas has more than tripled in recent years as the government and forest industry scramble to salvage what value they can from the disaster. Take away too many trees too fast, however, and the subsequent flooding makes it much tougher to replant.
But the biggest impact of the beetle infestation will be felt in another 10 to 15 years. That’s when more than 30 logged-out Interior communities will hit the wall in terms of having any wood left to harvest.
At the moment, those communities are seeing some economic benefits from the infestation. With all those dead trees out there and a real sense of urgency at the provincial level around salvaging the wood as quickly as possible, there’s no shortage of logging work right now.
But when the trees are gone, they’re gone. New pine forests won’t be ready for harvest for another 60 to 80 years. And while forestry-dependent communities have been grappling with hard times for years now, the economic devastation caused by the pine beetle could easily be the worst blow yet.
What can be done about any of this? Short of saying a prayer for our vanishing pine forests and bracing for the disaster still to come, barely a thing. This is devastating history in the making, and we can only hope to sift some new understanding from the wreckage.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ideology is no way to run a country
Oct. 5, 2007

The problems of ideology-based governance clearly must be more obvious from afar. Otherwise, Canadians wouldn’t be able to bear the hypocrisy of railing against oppressive and backward regimes elsewhere in the world while committing ourselves anew to the folly of a “war on drugs.”
With news this week that we’re returning full-force to the same fruitless battle we’ve already lost several times over, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has once again reminded me why word of his 2006 election plunged me into a pit of despair.
Here we are one more time, at least 60 years after we first heard from the experts that we were doing things all wrong, talking about “crackdowns” and the need to “get tough” with those who use illicit drugs. Posturing about all the butt-does kicking we’ll be doing at the border once our new anti-drug strategy is in place. Planning the latest version of an earnest but pointless campaign to convince teenagers not to use drugs.
Small wonder I eventually lost my appetite for journalism when I think how many times I’ve witnessed this particular story cycle unfold. The real tragedy is that the misuse of drugs continues to cost us $40 billion a year in Canada in direct and indirect costs, and that’s not even counting all the billions we’ve thrown away on misguided and ideologically driven attempts to do something about that.
Here’s the thing: Health issues can’t be resolved through ideology.
For the most part, we understand that. You wouldn’t catch us scrapping radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer, for instance, based solely on some politician’s belief that the only cure is to eat lots of vegetables. Were we to elect Jehovah’s Witnesses to office, I can’t see us banning blood transfusions.
So why do we continue to let our elected politicians ignore the science when it comes to drug issues? Why should anybody’s poorly informed position around drug use be the lens that we apply when trying to address complex health and social problems that are far too important to be left to political whim?
I respect the right of Stephen Harper and his MPs to believe that using illicit drugs is bad. It’s a free country and they’re welcome to their opinions, and never mind that alcohol is actually Canada’s most dangerous and readily available drug by a long shot. (The social costs of alcohol use in Canada are more than double that of all illicit drugs combined and health-related costs are three times higher.)
But why would we want to base something as important as our national drug strategy on opinion and belief?
We’ve got six decades worth of scientific studies underlining the importance of an informed, health-based approach in reducing the harm and societal costs of drug use. Yet we’re still letting vital public policy be decided by people who would rather maintain their personal fictions than take steps to fix the problems.
“This is a failed approach,” University of B.C. researcher Thomas Kerr commented to the media this week about the Harper government’s intention to launch yet another anti-drug strategy rooted almost entirely in enforcement. “The experiment is done. The science is in.”
We’ve researched drug-use issues from every possible angle over the years, and have established an astonishing amount of consensus at the scientific level in terms of how Canada can best manage problems related to drug and alcohol use. We verified a long, long time ago that concentrating our efforts on enforcement is not only futile as a way of reducing much of the problem, but also alarmingly costly.
But our current federal drug strategy devotes almost three-quarters of its annual $245 million budget to enforcement. The updated strategy being touted by the Harper government offers more of the same - and less of what’s actually working. Highly successful harm-reduction strategies like Vancouver’s safer- injection site are rumoured to be on the chopping block.
What is it that we`re trying to change? If it’s the flow of drugs into our country, then we need to tackle the issues of demand. We can knock ourselves out trying to stop drugs at the border, but they’re going to find their way in no matter what as long as there are Canadians to buy them.
If it’s the health risks we’re worried about, then we need to be providing honest information to everyone who might use drugs, particularly pre-teens heading into the inevitable experimental years. The key word is “honest,” which implies being truthful about which drugs are truly the scary ones.
Our old friend alcohol certainly wouldn’t fare well in that truth-telling. The annual health costs from alcohol consumption in Canada are almost 45 times that of marijuana, and alcohol is far and away the most dangerous drug of all to use during pregnancy.
If it’s drug addiction that we want to have an impact on, that entails dramatic, system-wide change, because we’re doing almost nothing right on that front at the moment. Addiction is a health issue, plain and simple. We’ll get somewhere when we start treating it like one.
So with all due respect, Mr. Harper, believe whatever you like in your personal life. But as prime minister, please run this country on facts and not fiction.